A few weeks back now I was lucky enough to race a superbly put on event in Hawke's Bay, the first time competing in that area since my long gone orienteering days.
The race in question was the MCL Triple Peaks, a 55km trail race, that summits three reasonable sized peaks south of Havelock North, which you reach through a variety of farm tracks, roads, single track and a couple of river crossings.
It's a race that has been around for almost my entire life in some way, shape, or form, and I'd previously considered entering many times in the past. I'd dismissed the race as many times as I'd considered it however, due to the fact it always clashed with other races I'd either already signed up for or preferred to do. One of those being the iconic Tararua Mountain Race, which this year was even on the same day. It was an incredibly tough decision to choose between the two, but after some discussion with my coach and with greater goals in mind, I finally decided on the Triple Peaks.
The defining reason for this choice was the course profile. With the upcoming Trail Running World Champs in Portugal in June being on a relatively fast, non-technical 44km course*, I was keen to test myself in the same scenario, which thankfully the Triple Peaks offered. The fact it was also a new challenge in a part of the country I love to visit, made it a lot easier to turn my back on my beloved Tararuas.
Racing to learn
So it was that upon entering, I'd decided this race was not one I expected to win or had a great fire under me to do so. I was there to see where I was race fitness wise, try a few things and have some fun before starting the last block before Portugal. If I was in a position to take the race, I'd certainly give it a shove, but I love the saying in racing 'you either win or you learn' and regardless of the two results mentioned, I knew it was going to be a blast and I'd get something out of it.
Stoked to be about to race
You may ask what the difference is between my approach to this race and others, and if I'm honest, there isn't much. It is subtle to the point there is not much difference at all. I mean, I still wanted to go out there and give things a good thrash. I had paid the entry fee and was travelling a long way to get to this race, I wasn't going up to lollygag around some farms while other runners gave their best.
A lot of the difference was related to my training surrounding the race and the impact the race could have on my physical and mental state both before and after the race. If I was approaching this as an A goal race, I'd have had a more targeted taper, be much more focused on the result of the day and potentially drive myself into the ground with a decent window of recovery afterwards. All of that was not conducive to a heavily loaded training block, so the plan was to do very little tapering and run the race in such a way that I could start back training almost a fully up to speed straight away.
As it turned out, I ended up having to rest a bit more than expected leading into the race due to a slightly tight ITB that popped into frame 5 days out from the race. I'd done a 25km trail run the Sunday before and felt a bit of a hot spot on my hip. So instead of two out of the five weekdays being rest days, I had three. This proved to be very helpful to my hip settling down, and quietly I was also a little glad that I wasn't going into an ultra race with legs that were overcooked.
Despite the slightly relaxed approach to the day, I still had my typical pre-race nerves which accounted for a good fifty percent less sleep than I'd have wanted. I'm so used to sleep before races being a luxury rather than a necessity now, I was able to get over it pretty quick. I tell you though, I'm hanging out hardcore for a race where I get that perfect nights sleep and have zero yawns on the starting line.
The crowd gathering at the village - Photo by Triple Peaks crew
My memories of how I felt that morning were mostly a sense of nervous unpreparedness. I hadn't been into an ultra before without the main goal of trying to win and I'd not hit some of the key physical and mental beats in my training or prep that I had done in all previous races for some time. That was weighing on my mind a little. Was I about to get destroyed and humiliated? I mean, I'm supposed to be the National and Oceanic Trail Running Champion - what if I'm to nothing in this race?
But then I thought about things in totality, and I realised I was letting something minor, about 1% of race prep, overshadow the other 99% of race prep I had actually done and that I'd be fine if I just ran to the plan. Repetitions of that doubt countered with faith in myself would cycle again and again that morning.
The Havelock North Village Green was the race's start, finish and entertainment hub, and when we arrived it was all set up, yet still relatively sedate. With over 700 people competing across all the events, we knew that wasn't about to last, and I was happy to breeze though the non-existent lines for timing chips and toilets and had a moment to just soak in the gathering crowd and get sunscreen applied to the body parts that were exposed, and some lube applied to the body parts that weren't.
Discussing my race plan with Clare, I expressed that I wasn't quite feeling on my game, and that my 5 hour race goal could potentially get to 5 hours 30 minutes. The literal quote I said to her was "I might take it a bit easy and just see how I go".
Of course, as soon as she left and I was standing on the start line with some fit looking competitors, the "take it a bit easy" line and feeling I was "off my game" totally disappeared from my head. Up the front before the gun went was Nick Johnston and Josh Garrett - both previous winners of the event, with Nick also being the champion of multiple high profile ultra races. Standing there with those guys honed my focus immensely and once the gun went off, I was stoked to be underway with 55km of good times, and a little suffering, ahead.
The first peak - Mt Erin
Me on left of photo - about to kick off - Photo by photos4sale http://photos4sale.co.nz
Approximately 11km from the start to the top, with about 500 meters of climb, was the goal of the first peak of Mt Erin.
After a rather unceremonious start I tucked in behind Josh, Nick, and a few other runners who I assumed were relay runners to see what pace they were going to set.
It looked fairly obvious early on the pace was going to be similar to hit the split Nick ran up to Erin last year, 56mins odd, and I knew if I attempted to stay with that I'd not be doing myself any favours later on in the race, so I sat back at a comfortable aerobic pace and soon found myself on my own with no one in sight - in front or behind.
Once on my own it was an opportune chance to concentrate on a few external stimuli.
I noticed how near perfect the conditions were. Very cool in the shade, of which there was plenty due to the sun still being quite low. Only a slight breeze adding to the coolness, but not causing any resistance to my running. A few clouds in the sky, but no chance of rain, and low humidity. I knew that I was going to be finishing around midday in the heat of the day, but if half of my run was at this temperature, then you couldn't ask for better.
The goal was to hit the top of Erin in an hour flat, which would allow me to be fresh enough to keep up the pace in the middle section, and attempt to slam home the final section. The pace and effort I was going at, it was going to be close to spot on.
Once leaving the sealed and gravel roads, my feet hit farm trails. Some were wide muddy cow tracks, made fairly greasy by the overnight rain, while some were harder packed single tracks created by decades of sheep walking along them.
A unique aspect of this race, and one that also drew me into entering, was that the same 55km running race, is shared with a 55km mountain bike race. Initially I was a bit skeptical about how this would all work with running alongside the cyclists. There is enough potential for mishap when you come across the old biker on a local trail during a training run, but I was assured from others who'd done this in the past that it was all fairly straight forward.
It came to be, during the climb up to Erin, I'd caught the the mountain bike back markers and continued to do so for some time, as they had to push or carry their bikes up the muddy and rutted farm paddocks and tracks. I knew that they'd soon be tearing past me, so I made sure not to gloat (too much) as I bounced unladen towards the summit. In fact it was nice to have a lot of them being very supportive, passing out the odd 'nice work' and 'well done' as I went past. I made sure to try repay the favour with the odd 'you too' if it fit between my heavy breathing.
Getting near the top of Erin past some cyclists - Photo by photos4sale http://photos4sale.co.nz
Once at the transmission tower, I was welcomed by a couple dressed in full Scottish regalia, playing drums and bagpipes. The military style empowerment that kind of music imbues lifted me from my top of hill exhaustion, and I charged off down the hill after a quick swig of some water.
And boy did I charge. The track went from fairly steep, to really steep. And the footing was fairly even and quite soft. While I've not really bombed a hill this early in an ultra before, I found it more taxing on my quads to slow myself, so threw a bit of caution to the wind by putting my arms out to the side and letting my legs fly. By having my feet contact the ground as little as possible, I found I was at the bottom and crossing the Tukituki River in no time with amazingly fresh quads considering the speed I went down the hill. It was a massive amount of fun too!
The second peak - Kahuranaki
After the river crossing, I reached the transition area to complete the predetermined tasks of filling my water bottles, taking a few extra drinks and reaffirming to myself that I was going to run this next section just a little harder than the first.
I was a good 5 minutes up on my splits due to my downhill escapades, so I figured I'd roll into the road section that would cool my jets up the next 5km, and then build up the effort as the pitches to the top of Kahuranaki got steeper.
It was all pretty good getting up the hill. Once leaving the road and into the farm that encompassed the brute that was Kahuranaki, some cloud cover appeared with a slightly stronger southerly breeze, which made the south side climb nice and cool. The track was a fairly new one, with a fresh limestone grit under my feet, as I started to put in a bit more work.
The last little bit of this climb took a bit of puffing, and aside from one dude on an e-assisted bike, all the cyclists were pushing or carrying. I had only seen a couple of other runners this leg. One being from my race who I passed along the road before the farm, and the other being from the single hill race who started 2 mins after me at the transition. I caught that dude again soon while powering up the hill.
Flying into the top of Kahuranaki - Photo by photos4sale http://photos4sale.co.nz
At the top I made the first, and probably only mistake of the race, so good to note it. I felt really good hitting the top having just put in a solid effort and thought to myself 'sweet, it's just down the hill to the transition where I can fill up with water again' - in my head I had it at about 30 mins.
Unfortunately, I both misjudged the fact that the clouds had burnt off by now, and that I'm obviously a goober, because it was always going to be at least 50-55mins. Even my splits I'd written down said that, but I didn't look at them and I rushed the water stop, only filling half a bottle, about 300mls.
The views up the top of Kahuranaki were impressive, you could see for an age in every direction, which was when I realised my mistake. I could see down towards the transition point at the river, and saw how far away it actually was. I was definitely going to be running a dry near the end of this leg. Whoops.
At this point, to add to my issues, the legs started to gelatinise somewhat, becoming a touch wobbly and tired as I attempted to bound down the hill. Of course, it was halfway into the race, so it was somewhat expected. There is always a point where your legs are supposed to start complaining. But it just added to an extra reason to complain, alongside other additions of the sun absolutely cranking and being sent down a lot of the hill on untracked farmland, removing any semblance of flow in my running.
Leaving bikers in my dust heading to the top of Kahuranaki - Photo by photos4sale http://photos4sale.co.nz
All of that combined, by the time I hit the farm road section back to the transition, still 20 mins out, I was tapped out of water and feeling a bit grumpy with things. I wanted to get some food down but was worried it wouldn't sit well without any water to go with it. Five minutes past when I was due to eat I decided that food then was better than food later. I figured risking some nausea was was the lesser of two evils.
Thankfully, my stress was unwarrented, as the gel went down easy and stayed down easy. I felt slightly boosted by the sweet taste in my mouth and pushed the 3km's towards the transition, where copious amounts of cool water waited for me upon arrival.
Two of the leading single peak runners, including the guy that I'd tussled with up the hill earlier, caught me up five minutes from transition - which was also the race finish for them. The fella I'd run with earlier was in second by a hundred meters and expressed a little dismay about being pipped so close to the finish. I tried to give him enough encouragement to catch the guy just in front, as I know what it's like when you're in the hurt locker and the other guy is started to gap you right at the end. I didn't quite get to see how it all played out, but I hope he gave it a good shove.
The third peak - Te Mata Peak
After doing the right thing, and taking my time in the transition, rehydrating, filling my water and taking a few seconds to think about what I had left to do, I was back crossing the Tukituki River and heading north, towards the base of Te Mata Peak, the final climb.
The sun was really cranking now. My shoes were still sodden from the river and with the weight of the full water bottles bouncing around, it made it really difficult to get into my work smoothly across the farmland. I also had the bane of a runners existence pop into the frame, the dreaded 'stone in the shoe'.
I tried to run on that stone for a couple of k, attempting to manipulate it to the side or front by contorting my feet as I ran, but it wasn't having it. It was a persistant little bugger right where I felt it worst, so ultimately I had to stop on the side of the track to remove the lump of annoyance for a minute or two.
All of this had me in a little bit of a grump. I was feeling heaps better in my legs than I did going down the hill, and I had wanted to start to wind things up a little along the road to the base of Te Mata, but I just found I was hindered constantly by things like knobbly farmland, the stone in my shoe, my race pack bouncing too much or just feeling like I was sweating bullets due to the sun.
Thankfully relief soon came in the forms of a sealed road that had partial shade, and a relay runner that caught me up. He was moving fairly well, and we started chatting as he went to move past. I was able to soon forget about my issues and just concentrate on moving with him, and I soon found my rythym again, and was back at a reasonable tick along the road.
This mode continued all the way until the left jank into farmland that would take us to the track network within Te Mata park. There was a steep farm road uphill, which I found quite a nice change from the flat running of the last 5kms. However, attempting to keep pushing on the slight downhill on the other side, I found my legs were really not in the mood. It took a lot of effort to not have them buckle on the strides, so I had to focus on relaxing and just holding out till that disappeared.
Turning into the redwoods of Te Mata park, the shade and change in scenery from the farmland snapped me out of the wibble wobbles and I found a steely determination that was missing from the last couple of hours. I told myself, 'You're running up the entire hill, don't even bother to walk', and that's exactly what I did. And to my bewildering surprise, I actually felt great as I got into a rhythm going up. It was such a rad track, basically a goat track stuck on the side of Te Mata that went straight up, and the steps were the perfect gradient for my legs to just keep tip tapping up them all the way to the summit.
The last peak, Te Mata - amping to be up there - Photo by photos4sale http://photos4sale.co.nz
Soon enough, I breached the top and had my last gel and a drink of water from the station at the top. The marshals up the top were pumping me up about getting down the hill to the finish, and I was happy to oblige as I set off down the road. My legs had a slightly different idea, as I found the power I wanted was not there at all. It was almost like those dreams you have where you need to run, yet you stay in the same spot. It took a lot more effort than I really wanted to get moving and when I looked at my watch, I was ten minutes down on what I thought I might be at that point, so I just had to grit my teeth and force as much out of my body as possible.
At the lower carpark, I was directed down the next section of trail, which turned out to be downhill mountain bike track, one that runners and walkers are normally told to stay away from. As I saw the cyclists who'd just shot past me on the road hit the track and cane down it at clip, I was a bit nervous about how my tired body could handle both getting down the technical parts of it, and dealing with a bike coming at the back of my head at speed. In the end I only had to deal with a couple of bikes while on that section, and while it was tricky, it did take my mind off how I felt while I descended as fast as possible to get into the double wide section in the valley that took us out to the Havelock North roads.
The Finish - Havelock North Village Green
As I dragged my ever complaining body along the last few kilometers of road, I was starting to think about seeing the family again. I knew I wasn't too far off my goal time of 5 hours, so they'd not be bored or annoyed I hadn't finished yet, and they'd be waiting there to see me come in. I also knew that my Grandad, who had just turned 90, would be there as well. He doesn't get around very easily these days, but he lives just up the road and was stoked when I mentioned I was racing this event. Being a rural Hawke's Bay man his whole life, he'd talked to me a lot about the hills I was running up prior to the race, painting a picture of the views I'd get to enjoy that he used to as a kid and giving me the low down on the terrain I'd be crossing.
I love how the end sections of the race give you those moments, when you're really hurting and knackered, yet still have that last little bit you need to give. It's the thoughts of the finish line, and what is there waiting for you, be it family, or food, or water, or beer. Or all of that and more. It's those thoughts that sweep the pain and suffering aside for those last few minutes to propel you all the way to the finish.
I had no idea where I was placed, but I didn't care, I was close to my goal time, I had come through the event injury free, and was finishing feeling strong.
Rounding the final turn into the finish, I heard my youngest daughter Piper yell out 'Dad!' and was over the moon to see my Clare and girls waiting at the end of the finish chute. I powered in, activated my timing chip and made sure to head right towards Piper to grab her and give her a sweaty hug. She says she hates it, but she doesn't complain too much ;)
Clare told me I was in third place. Boom. Very happy with that. Watch stopped at 5.06. I'll take it. Free Beer and a sit down. I'll take that too.
A few seconds after sitting down my Grandad pottered on over. He'd seen me finish from the side of the chute, which I missed as I came in. But we spent a few minutes talking about the course and the areas I'd been over, and as I mentioned certain places and roads that I'd covered, I could see him get a real lift, as his eye's lit up and and we kept chatting until I actually had to lie down on the grass.
The kids with their Great Grandad and buggered dad Happy to see me
Takeaways from the race
As mentioned at the top of the blog, this was a race to learn from as much as race in. With the World Champs following a similar course profile, I wanted to see how a few things went gear and nutrition wise, and adjust some things I'd done in races last year, ever so slightly.
The main takeaway I had was I need to stop stones getting in my shoe! I lost a good couple of minutes due to that. Unfortunately not sure how I can solve that easily without ankle gaiters, which would have been too hot and mostly pointless in that race, and are in fact too hot and unnessecary in most races. I could look at some other options, but I possibly just need to deal with it as the problem comes.
Another problem that seemed to slow me down was, after filling my two bottles, I had to deal with them jumping around in the front pockets way too much as I ran. It was the first time testing this vest in a race situation, and I guess in my practice runs I'd either run a bit slower, or actually had some gear in the backpack part of the vest. Without a full compliment of compulsory gear in the back, the heavily laden front had nothing to counter balance. It put me off my running flow at a time I really needed to just feel calm and run smooth, and as such I think it affected me more than it should have.
The last thing constructive I found I need to work on is my leg strength. Some of those downhills and flat sections, I was more wobbly than I needed to be, and I reckon just a few gym sessions a week should sort that.
All over though, the race went really well. I was stoked with third place, and reckon if it was a goal race, I'd have tried to bury myself a bit more in the latter section and I know I had it there. My climb up Te Mata was very satisfying, to be able to power up that hill so late on a hot day is a massive takeaway to the next race I do.
If you ever get the chance to do this race, I can only recommend it fully. It's fast for a trail ultra, with some sweeping views of Hawke's Bay and the race village is so well set up, everyone including the kids are well catered for.
Cheers Triple Peaks!
What I wore:
OR Running cap (ripped and worn out)
Julbo Aero Sunnies
Olympic Harriers Singlet
New Balance tight shorts (for the ladies)
Drymax Trail Socks
Saucony Peregrine 7 trail shoes
There was none! Just my Compressport vest for carrying water.
Nutrition & Hydration:
4x Gu Roctane Cherry Lime
My splits vs my expected splits